A Fresh Perspective: Leadership A Conversation with Prasad Kaipa

April 2002 / Fresh Perspective

Prasad Kaipa, based in Silicon Valley, is the CEO of SelfCorp Inc.— a company that focuses on aligning individual and organizational objectives. He is trained as a physicist who joined Apple in international marketing and then found his passion in Apple University. He has been a consultant to companies like Boeing, HP, Cisco, Xerox, Ford, and British Aerospace. His work has focused on executive development, executive coaching and approaches that draw out many aspects of his clients around leadership, personal mastery, dialogue and learning. He can be reached at pkaipa@selfcorp.com.

Q: I understand that you’ve been implementing a new approach to developing leaders. Is that correct?

PK: Yes, Russ. I’ve been working on helping leaders tap into their genius, either individually or collectively in teams.

Q: Help leaders tap into their genius: what does that mean?

PK: We operate at sub-optimal levels most of our lives. This is well researched. We can produce results many times more effectively, effortlessly and creatively than we usually do. It requires that we begin to tap into our natural genius, inner strength and source of energy and passion. That is what I am focusing on.

Q: Passion isn’t a word we hear very often in business. Tell us more.

PK: Entrepreneurs use that word a lot in the Silicon Valley, but once they build bigger companies passion seems to disappear from them also. Much of the time organizational objectives are not aligned with those of individuals who work in that organization. That leads to people just doing their job without any passion or connection. When people are not doing work that they are passionate about, they rarely have clarity about what they can truly deliver in terms of outcomes and how they change during the process. We operate and deliver like machines. It is very hard to come up with high customer satisfaction, innovation and new knowledge creation when we operate like machines.

I have found a way to help them tap into their genius. It has to do with helping them align their hearts, heads and actions in a metaphoric sense. Passion and commitment are connected to the heart. Creativity and innovation are connected with the head. Value creation and leadership are connected with actions taken by the body. I focus on helping my clients align themselves. They tap into the natural genius that many were unaware of.

When they make their tacit knowledge explicit (as is said in knowledge management) they begin to discover new capacity for action and for greater things. This capacity is normally blocked in us by our assumptions, mindsets, and attitudes, individually and in teams. This work itself is not new. I just found a different way to speak about it and package it to make it more relevant and effective for 21st century organizations.

Q: How do you work with them? Do you coach them?

PK: Some executives come to me saying, “I want to get this done,” or “I want to learn strategic thinking,” or “I would like to be more creative.” They have more clarity and awareness of what is missing but they don’t have access to themselves so that they can develop those capabilities. They have what you might call, the knowing-doing gap. In some other cases, executives come and say that they want their project teams, product development teams or management teams to be more effective and come up with breakthrough innovation or results.

I first look for fit with each potential client. If what they want is incremental changes, I am not the right person. There are many good consultants and coaches who can work on team building and executive coaching for performance improvement. If they are asking questions like “Now what?” or “What is next?” because they have come to a fork in the road and have no idea where to go or if they want to find their next significant step, then I can help them. I am only good in help create significant shifts in their effectiveness, productivity, creativity and passion.

So, let us say that there is a fit. If it is a team that they want me to engage with, I do a 360-degree assessment of individuals and the team. I need a base line to know where they are. Then I propose a multi-month engagement that includes one two-day workshop every quarter, half a day action learning sessions or team coaching sessions every month, one hour phone coaching sessions every week (who ever needs it can utilize part of that hour). The team members bring one project that is personal that they would like to work on in addition to the team project that they are focusing on. By the end of that period–I typically recommend a one-year engagement–these people develop individually and as a team. It takes time for real change to happen. They produce significant results both in their work and personal domains as measured by the success of their projects. The work we do during workshops every quarter is the alignment process.

Q: What are the workshops?

I do four workshops and the titles are ‘Reinvesting in Yourself: Clarifying your Personal Strategy,’ ‘Harvesting Your Creativity,’ ‘Igniting Your Passion and Commitment,’ and ‘Unleashing Your Leadership.’ Each of them focuses on finding and helping people to bridge the gaps in direction, head, heart and action.

I work with participants to clarify their projects both personal and work related. I have a methodology that allows them to identify their larger purpose that I call their North Star. In moving towards their North Star, they can reframe their projects and goals. We also look at what blocks their progress towards successful completion. They identify their Core Incompetence. This is where their foot is nailed to the floor, where they keep trying to make changes and are not able to. It haunts them again and again in different and unrelated areas and tasks. Until they resolve the polarity between North Star and Core Incompetence, they want to go towards their projects and goals but they don’t make much progress. This is what stops people from keeping their New Year’s resolutions. We do major work in this area during the two-day workshop.

Participants also identify an energy trigger and energy drain. An energy trigger is something that rejuvenates them after a tough or stressful day. It helps them chug along toward their larger goal. An energy drain slowly but steadily wears them down. They identify ways to become more vigilant about their drains and create an alarm system before they get completely drained of their energy. Developing awareness of their drains and triggers allows participants to be in the moment and pay more attention to their internal processes and external drivers.

Q: Do you have a conceptual model or framework for this developmental assessment?

PK: Yes, I do. The framework is based on three basic moods that we act from and six competencies through which the moods can be assessed. I use moods in the sense of attitudes. For example, when I started this phone call you greeted me with such a warm “Hi!” and when I responded back in the same perky way it kind of cheered both of us up. That “Hi!” set the context for this conversation. It is not the conversation itself but the mood we are in to have the conversation.

Before looking at what an executive does, we explore the mental state, the space from which he or she acts. That state is what I am calling a mood.

Q: Do these moods correspond to anything like pitta, kapha, vata, traditional Ayurvedic ways of thinking about energy?

PK: It is definitely related to energy, and yes, there is a correlation with body types of vata, pitta and kapha of Indian medicinal system, Ayurveda. I won’t elaborate the connection between them, if you don’t mind, at this juncture. I would just say that both are integral, holistic ways of looking at how your nature manifests through different body responses, words and behaviors. It is about the three moods you can act from.

There are also six different components in any action you take. When you focus on those six components you can develop competencies in getting things done effectively. When you map three moods onto these competencies then you have a 6X3 matrix to guide taking meaningful and effective action. My 360-degree assessment tool is based on this 6X3 matrix and helps people to know developmentally where they are, where they would like to go and what the gaps are. Once they note their gaps and identify the steps they would like to take, they can prioritize. That is where coaching and support comes in.

Q: From the perspective of a holon, it sounds like the moods are pretty much upper left quadrant. They get manifested in upper right quadrant. How is your perspective engaged with the lower left and lower right quadrants?

PK: Very good question. The moods, values and intentions are upper left quadrant material. Manifesting behavior is in the upper right quadrant. These two quadrants together, define our personal field. If we have less of a gap between our intentions and actions, our authenticity is high and we are aligned leaders.

The moods are dependent on the environment that we experience, the culture that falls in the bottom left quadrant. The social system, the organization, represents the bottom right quadrant. Together, they represent the organizational field. The effectiveness of the organization depends on the alignment between its culture and its system. If they are misaligned, the organization cannot easily deliver on the promises it makes. The objectives it sets remain as New Year’s resolutions because its culture does not support those objectives and tacitly creates conditions for them to fail.

When the individual notices the gaps in the organization and brings his or her own actions to bridge the gaps, then that individual grows rapidly in the organization. One has to walk carefully while doing this because culture can slowly but covertly make the individual very ineffective by sabotaging his/her work. It is about the strength of the individual field vs. organizational field. When they are both aligned, the organization and the individual both grow by leaps and bounds. When they are misaligned, one has to make choices. Moods and the assessment help to identify and understand these gaps and fields.

For example, if I were to call you up one day in a very excited, really celebratory mood and catch you at a bad time, chances are that the conversation will ground me in your reality and bring me down to a more sober mood. Hopefully though, you would have caught some of my energy and you would become less attached to your somber mood. We acknowledge our interconnectedness in the way in which our psychic energy–our relational energy–gets shared. This is the culture, the lower left quadrant that will interact with what one brings from the upper left.

If a leader is strongly grounded, she might be able to shift the direction of the culture in an organization to be aligned with her own. For example, Carly Fiorina did that recently with Hewlett Packard. HP is known to have a very strong culture called the HP Way and when Fiorina suggested the merger of Compaq and HP, the sons of two founders opposed her and made the merger process much more difficult than expected. But she brought all her energy and shifted the outcome to her favor and ultimately won support for her merger from the shareholders and the courts. Not many people can do that with a well-known and well-respected organization with a strong culture like HP. It requires a deep commitment and enormous internal strength to be able to do that. Sometimes the culture is too strong and will influence the leader to either get out or let go of the effort. That is the way in which the moods get affected by the environment. During those times, if the leader lets go and does not take it personally, then she can learn from the process.

Before the leaders take action they tap into the culture. They prepare the culture for appropriate action. There is an attitude with which they take action that either allows others to join them or get out of the way so that they don’t get hurt. Those actions produce results for the social system, the organization or corporation. So what I am proposing has components in all the four quadrants. That is why I use the phrase “holonic jump.”

Q: When you’re working with an individual leader, you’re explicitly exploring relationships among the quadrants, right? What it is you mean by leader or leadership?

PK: I’m looking at a leadership as a certain “field.” I call it a capacity. There are people who are “leaderful,” if I use the word Joe Raelin uses: he talks about leaderfulness. I like what he does very much.

Leadership is like an ocean and some people seem to be more aquatic than others. They have grown in that field called ocean-leadership ocean–and they have access and innate capability to lead in a natural way. Some others live on the ground, the solid earth of management. Some of them might have an affinity for management yet they start swimming in the leadership ocean, snorkeling and diving because the organization requires them to or the context demands them to. They develop comfort in the field of leadership and become leaders also. So leaders are born or developed.

There is a third kind of people. They can get into the leadership ocean, but it is not the field they are very comfortable with. They are not leaders innately and don’t have the comfort to learn how to lead. They work with the leadership and other leaders, but they are managers and focus on the management aspects of their work. They are very much needed and there is nothing wrong with management.

I look at leadership as a holon. I use a more biological term: leadership DNA. I do not mean it is created from bottom up as a building block but as representation of the essence. The holon is a fundamental building block of leadership DNA. There are four essential elements of leadership DNA. One is the leadership role, the upper right quadrant consisting of individual behavior.

Q: In my work I describe those roles as members of a group, contributors to an organization, players on a team, and entrepreneurs in an enterprise. That’s what you talk about as roles?

PK: That matches my understanding. People are how they show up, how they act. I am not talking about their intrinsic intentions, but their leadership behavior. That is upper right, quadrant.

The second part of the DNA is leadership opportunity. This is tacit/individual and belongs in the upper left quadrant. That is where personal leadership shows up based on intentions, moods, values and attitude. I call it a leadership opportunity for the leader to step into. Sometimes people step into it and take advantage of it and sometimes they don’t.

Q: Values, beliefs, moods, assumptions, perspectives and attitudes define opportunity. This is the meaning-making dynamic for an individual. The opportunity is something that is contained within the individual?

PK: That is right on. If I assume that I’m a victim, then I won’t go very far. Right? If I assume that I am making a choice I can step into the opportunity.

Mahatma Gandhi was a person who took the opportunity to be a leader. Even though he had the opportunity, he did not aim for ending apartheid in South Africa. He took the opportunity in India to step in and move to the next level. That is a personal choice that leaders make. The choice becomes available when the leader sees opportunities, not predicaments.

The third quadrant is intrinsic/collective, the lower left quadrant, and is what I call a leadership context. The context is set by the culture. The culture allows for certain kinds of leadership to thrive or to die.

Q: Context is defined by collective meaning making based on values and all the other elements of culture present in that particular situation?

PK: Yes. There are collective values, assumptions and ways in which the culture has evolved. It is tacit all the way. When there is an opportunity that shows up in the collective way, it becomes a context for somebody to step into, step out of or to make a difference. For example, there is the Palestinian-Israeli situation. It is a lose-lose proposition at this moment. The escalation in conflict always takes place when there is no way in which people can step out of the role that they have taken.

I’m not making a judgment about either Arafat or Sharon. They have certain roles that they have to play. They have to please the system that they are in and their constituents decide whether they are going to represent the system or not. The question is will Sharon and Arafat be able to go above the fray and beyond the role of being political leaders? Will they be able to go above the system and take an opportunity to provide leadership or not in bringing lasting peace in the Middle East. When individuals are ready but the context is inappropriate, they fail. The context may be ready, but if there is no individual who is willing to step into that opportunity and take on a leadership role—that would be very sad because lot of people suffer. That’s the third quadrant.

The fourth quadrant, lower right, is what I call the leadership system. So the leadership system represents the boundaries and practices and explicit rules to produce the end results agreed upon. It’s the manifestation part.

Q: Within your model, do you have a developmental framework?

PK: Yes, It involves the interaction between the individual field and the collective field. There is developmental opportunity for the individual to emerge as well as for the collective field to evolve. The interaction between the two, what is explicit and what is implicit in the interaction have to be understood meaningfully for the development to occur. My approach and the moods assessment are based exactly on this particular challenge.

We need to give leaders appropriate feedback so their roles become clear in the organization, opportunity shows up as a possibility and the context is clear where they need to make a difference. Then they can see the outcomes that they would need to create by shifting their action or their attitude that will result in different action. Each individual and organization is a living system and has its own DNA though it is mostly tacit. It is to our advantage to map and understand our DNA, our essence, so that we know what makes us tick and how we can ignite our natural genius whether individuals or organizations.

Once you identify your DNA, it becomes easy to distinguish where you shine, market your products and services effectively and brand yourself uniquely. In other words, you have opportunity to lead because leadership ultimately is a value creation process. If we know more about ourselves, we create higher value. Otherwise, we just keep doing what we are doing expecting different results. That is a definition of insanity!

To read more about the model Prasad Kaipa has developed, go to www.selfcorp.com.

To read the complete interview click here.